The Fall of Saigon occurred 41 years ago and this week there were commemorations of this event that dispersed Vietnamese people across the globe--a river dumping into the ocean. I was just a baby then, all but 3 years old. And family legend has it that I almost jumped into the ocean after my pacifier, so panicked to lose something that had given me so much comfort.
It hasn't been easy growing up with the status of refugee. There were so many images of us--so many unflattering images--that saturated the media landscape--images of skinny malnourished scarecrows like rats overflowing from the decks of sinking ships, images of naked young girls consumed by napalm fire...these images, they chopped my life up into a thousand mirrored fragments, and these fragments came to be reassembled into an elaborate prison house: that thing that made me a joke, a spectacle, an amusement, an object of pity--always reflecting to me the bits of me that are alarming distortions.
For me, this was the most difficult part of being a refugee--the way that you could feel belittled. And it was far worse than the mundane difficulties of acquiring a language, finding financial stability, learning the customs of the country. I've filtered out most of the overt racism--the taunts--but still some things linger: like the bearded professor in the tweed jacket--my college Chaucer professor--who was so moved by my excellent paper that he had to ask me the burning question, "Have you ever heard of the term 'boat people'?"
I had, of course, and I told him that I was not one--that that term referred to people who arrived a few years after 1975, the year Saigon Fell. Those people were so desperate to escape Communism that they took a gamble: launching boats they knew would never make a real voyage into international waters--launching boats that were bound to sink--because to sink meant that by international law, a passing ship would have to take them to safety. Sometimes this gamble paid off. Sometimes it didn't.
The professor didn't understand what my "no" meant. He was too excited. He told me about a refugee family he sponsored--a family of boat people. And how he developed a special bond with the young boat boy. He had taken the boat boy to see his first baseball game. The boy would have been just about my age. And I knew what he was thinking--that it was him, the boat boy, not me, sitting before him with a paper that was A+ work. "The family moved away after a while and then I never heard from them again. I've always wondered why."
The thing about being a refugee is that you know quite a few things about being a refugee and sometimes this is a blessing and sometimes, a curse. Right after I finished grad school, I spent a few months beach camping in Hawaii--an event that coincided with the announcement that George W. Bush invaded Iraq. And as my beach camping friends sat around a pit fire, drinking beer, and speculating about the outcome of the war, I blurted out the obvious: "No matter who wins or loses, there will be refugees--new refugees that the world will have to deal with." Everybody looked at me like I was a genius but, really, I wish I wasn't in the position to possess this knowledge.